—10— The Last Execution and the Philanthropist
Robert Davies was the second of three sons born to Anglesey businessman Richard Davies. John, the eldest of the three, died at age the age of 40 but Robert and Richard went on to develop a prosperous business empire. The brothers accumulated considerable wealth from their shipping business at Menai Bridge. In the 1840s and 1850s the family built up a good trade in importing timber, exporting slate and carrying emigrants to the Americas. But the bulk of their wealth was gained between 1843 and 1904 when they had a large fleet carrying guano from western South America. From this trade the family was sometimes known in Menai Bridge as teulu baw adar (bird lime family). Their businesses provided employment for large numbers, making them important to the economy of the town. Richard held many public offices, including Member of Parliament. It was as Lord Lieutenant that in 1862 he appointed Robert as High Sheriff of Anglesey. The duty fell to Robert to be at the hanging of Richard Rowlands, the last man to be hanged on the island. Rowlands, Dic Roland as he was known, was accused of murdering his father-in-law, which he strongly denied. It was reported in the press that his persistence in declaring his innocence in what it called “the most solemn and, one would think, truth-inspiring circumstances” this, the paper said, was the most striking part of his conduct. Rowlands went calmly to the scaffold, although still protesting that he was innocent; he
probably was. "Remember my last words:” he declared, “I tell you I am innocent of the crime for which I have been condemned” then, tradition has it that Rowlands put a curse on the Church clock opposite the scaffold. For years afterwards it failed to keep the right time. But this was not the only legend that was born on that day in 1862. As Rowlands fell through the trapdoor the High Sheriff, Robert Davies, fell in a faint. He never took part in public affairs again and apart from his business (and his hobby of chemistry) his main interest was to be philanthropy. As time went by he became more and more reclusive, hardly ever leaving the house and grounds of his newly-built home at Bonlondeb, his home directly opposite Menai Bridge town, where he lived an austerely frugal bachelor life. Thus he became something of a legend in his own lifetime. It appears that he allowed his money to pile up until about 1885, when he began giving it away in large sums, often anonymously. His giving was widespread, reaching every corner of the world. His beneficiaries included the Overseas Missions (£6,000 annually), the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Salvation Army, the Methodist Children's Home at Bontnewydd and the University and Normal Colleges in Bangor. His minor charities are exemplified by the weekly dole of flour given to those who came to Bodlondeb to fetch it (and which the Dictionary of Welsh Biography calls amusing) and his Christmas distribution of coppers to those who passed his gates. Eccentric and a recluse, he never married and died intestate at Bodlondeb on 29th December 1905; he was buried with his parents at Llangefni. He gave generously to local chapels, among them Beaumaris English Presbyterian built in 1870, and Holyhead English Presbyterian in 1891. He bore the entire cost, in 1888, of building R.G. Thomas's masterpiece in Menai Bridge, a building which has given us some modern legends which probably serve to show us how legends are born. When I took up the task of preparing a guide book I was puzzled to find that most books and guides referred to Richard Davies as the man who built this church. I had already established in my research that it was built at the expense of Robert. Contemporary newspaper reporter attribute it to him, also the memorial window and plaque erected by Robert’s nephews and nieces, Richard's children, make it quite clear that it was their uncle that was the benefactor. How did this legend arise? As I see it, Richard was the man that everybody knew, the very public face of the Davies brothers. It was Richard, therefore, that was viewed as the man who built the church. What of the other statement that I heard from everyone as I explored the beginnings of the church? “He built it for his daughter’s wedding”, everybody told me. I knew that the “he” could not be Robert as he was a bachelor and had no daughter. Someone suggested to me that it was the architect R.G.Thomas that built for his daughter, pointing out that she was mentioned on the memorial plaque in the church. This is easy to dismiss as R.G.Thomas’s daughters were only 15 and 13 when the church was built; the elder, Mary, never married and Jane married in 1905. Was it then Richard’s daughter? More than likely, as Richard's third daughter Edith had grand society wedding in the church just one week after its dedication service. But was it built especially for this wedding? Personally, I have some reservations. The land was purchased and plans began to be made in 1883-1884, four or five years seems to be a long time ahead to plan even a wedding like this. My feeling is that the wedding plans came when it was realised that they could have the use of this prestigious venue, it was then a simple step for people to say that not only was it Richard that built the church, but also that he built it with the wedding in mind.
Another legend that seems to have a life of its own, for I find it repeated in books and leaflets over and over again, is that Richard Griffith Thomas was the architect not only of the English Presbyterian Church but also of the Victoria Hotel. A simple bit of research shows that it cannot be so as it was built around 1840 and R.G.Thomas was born 1847. There is, however, a simple explanation. In 1909 he was engaged to carry out some work to upgrade to the building, a project that led to a tragedy. Early in May 1909 he had climbed up onto the roof of the Victoria Hotel to supervise and inspect the work. But the ladder was not long enough. He leant over, slipped, fell, and received serious injuries from which he did not recover. He died on 22st May and was buried on Church Island. From this event his name obviously became associated with the Victoria Hotel and it is easy to see how the legend grew. So from these stories we see that legends are not just from the mediĂŚval past but are alive and well today.
Local history and how Legends are born. Menai Bridge